One of the foundational stories of how Lathrup Village came to be is the one about how the young Louise Lathrup hired four noted Detroit architects to be her architectural board.

One of them, F. Orla Varney (1885-1969), was a member of a family of architects. His father, Freeman Nelson Varney (1856-1914) and uncle Almon C. Varney (1849-1930) were also architects.

I keep a list of buildings I want to see and photograph, culled mostly from Facebook architecture groups. On my list were two 1880s-era Detroit homes designed by someone named Varney within a couple of blocks of each other, very near where I had an appointment on a recent arctic but sunny morning. I put them on the list because I thought they were our guy, F. Orla. In fact, they were designed by A.C.

The four homes pictured are on Canfield (top photo) and West Forest (second and third photos) between Second and Third and all are attributed to A. C. Varney.

Apparently, he was very active in designing this area. In addition to the four mansions pictured, his work includes the El Moore apartment house on West Alexandrine (final photo) and other apartments that have since disappeared, including what is credited as the first apartment building in the city, Varney Apartments. He also designed homes elsewhere in the city, factories, offices and commercial buildings. At some point he had an office in the Dime Building downtown, as did Louise Lathrup, although I don’t know if their tenancies overlapped.

It’s interesting to see how dramatically styles in residential architecture changed from the 1880s, when A.C. built the pictured buildings, to the 1920s, when Louise began building her California bungalows, and from one generation of Varneys to the next.

But if Louise Lathrup happened to read A. C. Varney’s book, she may have found a kindred spirit there. In 1884, at about the age of 34, he published a book titled “Our homes and their adornments.” It’s subtitled “Happy homes for happy people.” In it, he discusses why brick and stone are best for exteriors and why attention should be paid to details, “endeavoring to show where beauty in the exterior of our houses may be had, and that, too, in many cases without increasing the cost, if we only use good taste, skill and fair judgment in the design.”

Sound familiar? In her book “Gateways to Happiness,” published in 1924 when she was about 31, Louise Lathrup’s subtitle is “A book of home plans and a home planning service.” On page 14 is a short poem which again mentions happiness:

The little homes that hold

Such power to soothe and bless;

They’re packed with joys untold—

Gateways to Happiness!

The book devotes pages to the beauty of brick, various styles of bungalows and the value of good architecture produced by registered architects over amateurs. It’s why she decided to offer free home plans to all her lot-buyers, hoping to help them avoid the big mistake of going with an amateur.

“He does not seem to realize … that it takes no more materials for a house of correct lines than one of poor lines; and that, if he have an amateur’s plans, he will have an amateur-looking house.”

I don’t know if Louise was aware of Varney’s book, just as I don’t know if she was aware of England’s Garden City movement, which she seems to have embraced wholeheartedly. Maybe someone else, such as her future husband, Charles Kelley, a real-estate writer at the Detroit News, exposed her to these ideas. Or maybe great minds just think alike. She is forthright in acknowledging that she had a lot of expert help in planning her development.

Whoever gets the credit, Louise was the one who put it all on the line, borrowing millions to make the dream happen and hanging on through the Depression and World War II when so many others slid into bankruptcy. Was she happy? Maybe not. But her design principles have stood the test of time.


2 thoughts on “Down the architectural rabbit hole

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s